The Agonist Journal

How far can the now nearly universal drive for equality go? The drive not just for equality before the law and equality of opportunity but also for equal and uniform outcomes? Is there no “natural” limit?

"In short, the movement toward equality is destined to fail, mostly because even though equality can be striven for in some areas, and can even be achieved in a small number of others, the effort to reach equality in those realms where it is most consequentially felt will be frustrated by the intractable nature of the material to be equalized."

In some quarters, this drive has reached a frenzy. Its demands, when combined with its corollaries anti-racism and anti-sexism, presume to reach into even the smallest cracks and corners of both the public space and civil society. Nothing apparently can satiate this demand—short of, perhaps, the equal distribution of all resources, awards, honors, pleasures, possessions, indeed of all and every kind of material good and form of recognition.

One of these cracks is now being filled with the demand that men dressed as women be allowed to use women’s rest rooms and that transgendered “women” be permitted to compete against women in athletic contests. This and similar demands are less argued for than insisted on, often hysterically, sometimes with threats against those who oppose such innovations.

This inclination to forego debate and instead disrupt is often attributed to a simple inability to engage in reasoned argument, and that is thought to be due to a corrupted schooling that emphasized thinking right at the expense of thinking. The education of equality’s advocates is probably deficient. Their accumulated knowledge might not be able to fill a small purse. But that is not what is behind this seeming deficiency in rhetorical prowess. Rather, the disdaining of argument stems from a hypertrophied sense of equality that colors their whole worldview and encourages a retreat from agon. These young people do not refuse to engage in argument because they don’t understand argument’s power or because they are somehow unable to muster a syllogism. These young people have very definite points of view about which they feel strongly and which they hope to see triumph.

But not triumph at the debaters’ podium. For the very notion of a debate is contra-egalitarian. All contests are. Just as in the egalitarians’ ideal world trophies for sporting prowess have been banished, so in the political world dialectical superiority will no longer be recognized. More, it will be forbidden.

It is natural that equality’s advocates should flail especially hard at those—white males in the present case—who would frustrate their efforts, frustrate them either by intention or by the simple fact of their existence and their long history of achievements. So the voices for egalitarianism may chant the mantra of Diversity, Inclusion and Equality while denigrating those white male accomplishments and exaggerating their own. Even though this movement insists on equality before the law and equality of opportunity, an exception must be made for those who are indelibly part of the old order. They won’t be allowed entrance on their own terms because those terms constitute a challenge to the new dispensation’s rationale. There will be no role for them.

The final aim of the equality movement is a society whose structures and institutions ensure that no future inequality can emerge. Equality’s enemy, of course, is quality. The pursuit of quality or even the noticing of grades of quality constitutes a rank ordering, and that is precisely what is not permitted: noticing qualitative differences. Consequently, all those institutions whose fundamental purpose had been the recognizing and honoring of good work and good workers are fast becoming anathema. The first egalitarian advance on this front was to insist that the muses have blessed all races, sexes and generations equally and that they all therefore should be represented on the awards shows, in the distribution of grants, in the placement in museum niches, in the libraries and classrooms and in all public spaces. The end will be the insistence that no work or thought or speech is better than any other, at which point the rationale for institutions such as museums will be gone, except to hold rotating displays of everyone’s contributions.

The fundamentally destructive nature of the equality movement thus becomes fully evident. Monolithic and unchallengeable, it threatens not to just steamroll flat much of Western culture to the level of more recent contributors, but to erase much of it entirely. Art appreciation and humanities courses with their long list of white-heavy contributors are being dropped, statues tumbled, photos erased, names purged, history thoroughly rewrit.

If unchecked, the end will be a hodge-podge homogeneity, a universal siblinghood of equals that will necessarily be built, as Kundera has written, on the basis of kitsch, the only ground on which anything approaching universal agreement is possible. Equal parts uncritical intellect and warm, fuzzy feeling, kitsch is all that which appeals to mostly thoughtless sentiment—to a claim or notion or tune or art object that one can immediately warm to because of its seemingly nonthreatening character and its affirmation of a seemingly unobjectionable value, erstwhile values such as motherhood, apple pie and baseball, or the au courant inclusiveness, nonjudgmental co-existence and universal harmony—a harmony achieved much in the way that Lazar Kaganovich achieved a classless society in Ukraine.

Those not susceptible to the charms of kitsch, of course, may find it offensive for more than its pretense of inoffensiveness and its hailing of that which is stereotyped, familiar and adolescent.  The only kind of ranking still permitted under the new regime will be that, like Dante’s, which concerns itself with crimes and criminals, sins and sinners. Since classifying a sin mortal or venal will not likely give rise to invidious comparisons, at least among those who see themselves as sinless, it poses no threat to the notion of equality. Hate crime legislation will be allowed to wantonly expand. The impulse for even more draconian measures is seen in the National Health Service’s recent guideline that would allow staff to refuse non-critical care to patients displaying “aggression or violence,” including “sexist or racist remarks,” toward staff or other patients.

Faring no better will be the political arena, the public space whose nature and purpose it is to invite, if not incite, a contest of wills. Its very purpose is agon. Competing ideas, the clash of personalities and persons, a vote to decide the winner and loser. All this too is now anathema as it too gives rise to invidious rankings. Worse, those likely to triumph will be those who have always triumphed in such contests, men, strong men. That the forces for equality have made advances on this front with the shutting down of speakers, the outlawing of some points of view and so on needs no reminding.

To outlaw disputation is to substitute a complete rule of law for a regime that is based on law but guided by men, duly elected when direct democracy is not feasible. It is to substitute the household for the polity, and administrators, managers and technocrats for politicians, party men and public intellectuals. If politics is mostly about who gets what, when and how, then politics can be got rid of once and for all by mandating that everyone receive the same amount just as often as it becomes available. That spells the end of the republic—the public thing. All would be privatized.

Ideally, the entire public sphere, with its competing speeches and its opposed factions, should give way to something along the lines of a household, as nicely illustrated by Aristophanes in his comedy Women of the Assembly. Here a sisterhood, which has replaced the patriarchy, arranges for the provision of common meals and common lodging, providing for all material wants in scrupulously equal portions. Those portions to be equalized include most prominently that of sexual satisfaction, for, as Aristophanes saw all too clearly, if the socialist ideal of perfect equality is to be realized, it will have to solve the tricky problem of sexual satisfaction. For after all, besides living itself, and having adequate food to keep the body alive, what does man give more of his time to than the prospect of sex with a desirable partner? What consumes as much of his idle day, fills his dreams, drives him in work and play as the prospect of sexual pleasure? If some scheme cannot be devised to equalize the distribution of such a highly prized good here, then the whole notion of equality is a joke.

Aristophanes has an answer, or rather, his Assemblywomen do. The scheme is simple: Require of attractive men and women that before they are allowed to engage in sexual relations with each other, they will have to first service those who are ugly, if called upon by the ugly to do so. Voila, beautiful sexual partners for all.

Of course, Aristophanes’ solution wouldn’t really solve the problem of unequal satisfaction, because what would remain unequalized would be a far more important good, that of being desired or being loved. This cannot be forced, or legislated, for the obvious reason that some people are not desirable or loveable.

The socialist Charles Fourier tried to correct the Assemblywomen’s deficiency by proposing an elaborate mechanism, including a Court of Love, whose responsibility it would be to ensure that everyone had a satisfying minimum of sexual pleasure. This would be done in part by overseeing sex workers of both sexes who would volunteer their time, or perhaps get paid at an hourly rate, to conduct errands of mercy. Thus satisfied, says Fourier, and relieved of the anxiety of being deprived of future sexual pleasures, man would be freed from the tyranny of the genitals, coitus would assume less importance, and all this would allow the blossoming of a full and authentic self who would now be equipped to make a higher conception of Love “the mainspring of all works and the whole of universal attraction.”

Alas, there seems to have been one precondition for this sexual utopia that would frustrate any serious effort to realize it. Fourier said he was describing in his proposed utopia not men as they are but an “order of things in which the least of men will be rich, polished, sincere, pleasant, virtuous and handsome (excepting the very old) …” It must be admitted that, if one is dealing with only handsome men and women, one has gone a long way to solving the problem of equalizing sexual pleasures and love.

Forced to work with the available clay, however, the potter’s task would be both Herculean and Sisyphean in any age, but it would be particularly daunting today. That’s because the demand for sexual satisfaction with beautiful males is particularly intense. Largely uninhibited sexually and equipped with technology that allows them to sift through the photos of thousands of available men, the female’s impulse, as F. Roger Devlin has pointed out, is to restrict herself to pursuing only the most attractive, if only for temporary relationships. The result, says Devlin, is a hypergamy wherein many women are chasing after few men and a few men enjoy many women, while many men are left lonely and in the cold. Hence the phenomenon of incels. Given this trend, it is not surprising that the efforts made by the equalitarians to equalize in this area have so far been meager, largely confined to occasional condemnations of “agism” and “lookism.” But given the near universal desire for sex and love with attractive partners, this is not an area that can be ignored for long.

Devlin’s call for a return to monogamy and a prohibition on adultery at most might get us closer to the ethical realm of the ’50s, but not much closer than that to equality in this area.

In short, the movement toward equality is destined to fail, mostly because even though equality can be striven for in some areas, and can even be achieved in a small number of others, the effort to reach equality in those realms where it is most consequentially felt will be frustrated by the intractable nature of the material to be equalized.

Not just the distribution of meaningful satisfactions in the form of sex and love will embarrass equality’s goal,  but also, as Tocqueville noted, even if men “unhappily attained that absolute and complete equality of position, the inequality of minds would still remain, which, coming directly from the hand of God, will forever escape the laws of man.”

That absolute equality is a goal doomed to frustration will not in the least slow the leveling juggernaut. On the contrary, this movement has been racking up some signal victories, not least the near universal acceptance of equality as society’s foremost value and goal. It is at a juncture such as ours, to quote Tocqueville once again, “when everything is nearly on the same level, the slightest [inequalities] are marked enough to hurt society. Hence the desire of equality always becomes more insatiable in proportion as equality is more complete.”

Which is to say, the demands put on equality will never end because they can never be realized, and new demands will grow ever more insistent as previous demands are met. But they must be checked, for they are well on their way to flattening the whole of our culture while they further reduce our appetite for freedom.

Legal equality, to be sure, is not a false god. But it is only one of several divinities, and if society is not to succumb to the evils that the demand for absolute equality entails, these other divinities must also be paid obeisance. These include tradition, hierarchy, duty, the authority of intellect and status, responsibility and, most important, freedom. Each of these has been weakened, and in some areas completely undermined, by the forces for equality. And that, as a practical matter, has meant the chipping away at our history, traditions, and the great treasures (in the form of literature, music, statuary, and so forth) that should be our patrimony, and the sense of ourselves as a distinct and proud nation.

Indeed, all that remotely smacks of high culture is likewise anathema to equality’s most radical advocates. Even the word “discrimination” has acquired such a taint that it is at least impolite to be found discriminating over the most trivial thing. Who now wants to be considered “a discriminating man,” not long ago a high compliment?

The author Stephen King has lately been excoriated for saying that he “would never consider diversity in matters of art, only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.” For that he was accused of exercising white privilege, being an opponent of affirmative action, and promoting systemic bias. Rather, his critics insist, one should judge by the criterion of diversity–which would mean the division of all honors so that all self-identifying groups get theirs.

What is at stake, thus, is the whole of our Western inheritance and all the freedoms appertaining to it. One might think that, as matter of logic, absolute equality would entail absolute freedom as those who consider themselves the equal of all others would not see the point of granting someone else superiority over him, political or otherwise. But the landscape does not easily invite the conclusion that with the increasing demands of equality, freedom’s realm will likewise expand.

Tocquevillle says there are periods in the life of a democracy when the claims of democracy reach a peak. We, it seems clear, are in such a period now when the passion that many people “entertain for [equality] swells to the height of fury. This occurs at the moment when the old social system …  is overthrown … and the barriers of rank are at length thrown down.”

The appetite for freedom and equality is characteristic of all democracies, Tocqueville says, “But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.”

Invincible? So it seems. Nietzsche once advised that if you wish to see an idea defeated, allow it to become victorious. That may be our future.

But those not resigned to that thorny path might attempt to reclaim that which many men have allowed to fall into desuetude—their very masculinity. Men have mostly stood aside, and not in a few cases cheered, as the sisterhood’s household thinking has more and more encroached on the essentially masculine world of strife and contest, of excellence proved and competence tested against all challengers.

The defining of masculinity as toxic is the redefining of man down. Virtue, which for the Romans was synonymous with man (vir) in his highest manifestations, was once largely a matter of courage, integrity and moral rectitude. Males were encouraged and they consequently aspired to become fully developed culturally and physically, strong and upright. In Greece something like this developmental program was called paideia; in Germany, Bildung; and in Western European countries generally humanitas.

The standards implicit in these ideals are now mostly spurned for the predictable reason that they are not within the grasp of everyman and everywoman. Indeed, they stand as a reproof of all who do not measure up.

The new model, eagerly embraced by many young men, makes few if any demands that are not within the reach of all. An absence of aggression, oodles of agreeableness, full subscription to the feminist orthodoxy, compliance in the face of ever new demands, men as safe (for women of both sexes) as the safe spaces on college campuses—this is the outline of non-toxic “masculinity.” The aim is to fashion men in the image of women, a project that implicitly understands that equality, full and complete equality without remainder, is achievable only when everyone is identical. Fourier conceded as much when he wrote that his plan for universal sexual satisfaction depended on all men being “polished, sincere, rich, pleasant and handsome”—all, that is, cut from the near identical cloth.